Thursday, April 4, 2013

Problem is Not in the Implementation

       In this note I want to address some dangerous myths that underlie public discourse and Civil society participation in public policy discussion and lobbying for their pet concerns.  There is an illusion, bordering on delusion, that the source of all our problems is the Central Government in Delhi and if only it had the intelligence and the moral fiber to pass the right laws, all our problems would be solved.  The problem is the opposite: there are myriads of laws, rules regulations programs and projects on every conceivable problem and issue under the sun and we keep adding to them every year, without putting in the hard work of studying and changing them.  On the other side, the bureaucracy, which stretches from State capitals (including Delhi as a State distinct from the central govt) down to the village, is completely in adequate to implementing the plethora of laws, rules regulations and of carrying out programs and projects with any degree of rationality.  The few intelligent and sincere people who still try to do their job to the best of their ability, are completely outnumbered by those who make little pretense of serving public purpose and are there merely to further their own welfare.  Unlike in a business, there is no metric to alert the public of the performance of any government office.
      As I wrote over a decade ago,"The power to do good has been severely reduced while the power to do harm has increased." As the proportion of the corrupt increases the constraints on corruption decline. The bureaucracy, from the pettiest official at the bottom of the pyramid to the top, has little positive incentive for doing good, while the risk of going against the prevailing culture of self-aggrandizement is grave. So it is advisable to keep your head low and do the basic tasks with a minimum of effort.
      Is there a way out of this negative spiral.  In the same paper (which incidentally was presented at RGIDS, published in 2 journals and reprinted in 3 books) I suggested that Government must focus its limited resources (financial, human, attention span, time) on those problems and issues only it can do well and others cannot do.  Business and Non-Government organizations must not only be freed to do what they are good at, but be encouraged and supported. 
     "Inclusive Growth" is a very nice phrase that captures the philosophy and poetry of what the government must try to do, but unless backed by hard scientific analysis of problems solutions and priorities, it results in a further diffusion of focus to more and more problems, and less and less solutions.  It adds to the burden of the 150 odd programs that a typical district magistrate/collector is required to run in a district -- One has to be totally delusional to believe that the DM/DC can actually run so many programs or that he even bothers to try.  
     A law, rule, policy or regulation that is made without understanding the system that will be required to implement it, is a bad law, rule, policy regulation.  Those who propose it, cannot later deny culpability, by saying that "the problem was in the implementation,"or that "It is the failure of the system."  If you claim the right to determine policy, people have the right to expect you to learn about the system that will implement it!
      An understanding of systemic limitations leads to two different but complementary approaches: One, keep trying to reform the system, even though this is a long and frustrating process. Two, in the immediate future try to minimize/reduce the demands on the government system by creating a policy and regulatory environment that makes it possible for business, non-government organizations and civil society to solve the problem more effectively.  In the decades since I understood the system, I have applied this approach to policy reform.  Focus on essentials, prioritize, compare solutions and suggest only those that have a higher probability of success (there are no perfect solutions only better or worse). 
     If you want to get a flavor of these policy reform suggestions in different areas & sub-sectors, see When you are ready to dig deeper see .

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